הַחֹ֧דֶשׁ הַזֶּ֛ה לָכֶ֖ם רֹ֣אשׁ חֳדָשִׁ֑ים רִאשׁ֥וֹן הוּא֙ לָכֶ֔ם לְחָדְשֵׁ֖י הַשָּׁנָֽה׃
This month shall mark for you the beginning of the months; it shall be the first of the months of the year for you.
:החדש הזה. הֶרְאָהוּ לְבָנָה בְּחִדּוּשָׁהּ וְאָמַר לוֹ כְּשֶׁהַיָּרֵחַ מִתְחַדֵּשׁ יִהְיֶה לְךָ רֹאשׁ חֹדֶשׁ
החדש הזה — He showed him the moon in the first stage of its renewal, and He said to him, “The time when the moon renews itself thus, shall be unto you the beginning of the month.”
Chapter 12 of Exodus can arguably be described as the birth of the Jewish people, as we prepared for the first Passover Seder in history, to be held on the eve of departing from slavery in Egypt. But first, we were given the gift of time, the freedom to set our own calendar by the light of the moon.
The Jewish calendar is a combination of lunar and solar, with the months based on the lunar cycle and an extra month inserted every 2-3 years in order to bring the lunar calendar back into harmony with the solar calendar so that the holiday retain their seasonal anchors, with Passover in spring and Rosh Hashanah in the fall (in the Northern Hemisphere). In ancient times, the new months were announced by the Sanhedrin after the sliver of moon was sighted by two witnesses.
An interesting quirk of the Hebrew calendar is that we have more than one new year, four to be precise. I believe that this shows we have different experiences of time, including cyclical and linear time. Nisan, the springtime month of Passover, is considered the first month of the year for counting months. In that way it is the first month for cyclical time, for the seasons going ’round and ’round in their endless cycle (although in danger from global climate change). But for numbering the years, we start with Tishrei, the seventh month, with Rosh Hashanah. That represents linear time. Each year promises change and new beginnings, that we can improve, that tomorrow can be better than today. (Of the other two new years, Tu Bishvat, or the New Year of Trees has contemporary relevance, with its emphasis on the organic time of nature.)
This ancient Jewish connection with the moon was taken further as our Sages saw the waxing and waning moon as a symbol of the Jewish people through our historical vicissitudes. The cyclical nature of the moon was also seen as a symbol of the cycles of our own lives from contracted or “darker” periods, to brighter and more expansive periods. The symbol of the moon offers a message of hope for restoration and renewal.
As I also share in a post about Flowing Water, my teacher Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi loved the classic story about King Solomon searching for a ring that could make a happy person sad and a sad person happy. The king was pleased when a silversmith made a ring with the words, Gam Zeh Ya’avor גם זה יעבור “This too shall pass.” Reb Zalman had these words printed on a rubber bracelet (it also had the phrase, Gam Zu Le-Tovah גם זו לטובה “This too is for the good”). When we were going through a hard period in our family life, he sent us several, and I wore mine daily for strength, until it was time to pass it along. It is not only a story about how life flows with change, but also a story about how life goes in cycles, like the moon.
Featured Image: New Moon, Venus, Mars, James Havard via Flickr
Go deeper into the meaning of the Moon and the Hebrew Calendar with this fascinating podcast by Rabbi Leon Morris, president of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Published January 14, 2018, for the Torah portion Bo (Exodus 10:1-13:16). You can listen to more of their excellent podcasts here, or subscribe on iTunes.